A couple of months ago, twenty-four prisoners in the maximum security wing at Durham Prison barricaded themselves in their cells in protest against a new work system. They were, they said, only sticking up for their rights. On March 5 last, forty-one young soldiers protested against Army bull and red tape by marching in good order out of barracks — and back in again later. Sticking up, again, for their rights.
The same week, Emil Savundra and Peter de Quincy Walker appealed against the heavy sentences imposed on them after the collapse of Fire, Auto and Marine. They were only demanding their rights. The February issue of The Seaman, journal of the National Union of Seamen, invites all NUS members to exercise their right to apply for a place in the union’s national one-week educational course.
Get the point? The word “rights” means almost anything that anyone wants it to mean.
Governments talk about “rights”. The French constitution of 1946 proclaims that all men have the right to work, to strike, to take leisure, to enjoy culture, to take part in joint management and to have society’s help when they are unfit to work. These “rights” sound desirable enough— but dig a little deeper, and ask in whose interests some of them are proclaimed.
Nineteen sixty eight, for anyone who has been too busy campaigning against political prisoners, racial persecution and dictatorship, is Human Rights Year. This is a United Nations idea; it goes back to May 1946, when the first meeting took place of the UN Commission on Human Rights. Eleanor Roosevelt, widow of the late President of the United States, was in the chair.
The Commission was expected to draw up two documents: a Declaration of Human Rights and an International Covenant (how these words roll off the tongue!) defining the principles of human rights and making them legally binding on all signatories. At the second session, at Geneva in November 1947, the Commission decided that three stages would be necessary — Declaration, Covenant, Implementation. The third session added a Preamble and eventually, in December 1948 in Paris the Declaration, and only the Declaration was accepted. The Covenant had to wait until 1966 for its adoption. And the Implementation?
Before anything can happen on that there must be some thirty-five ratifications and the UN admits there is little chance of that even though, it says, the Declaration embraces all the rights and freedoms essential for the dignity and development of the human personality.
These are some of the rights covered by the Declaration: freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention or exile; the right to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal; freedom of thought, conscience and religion; freedom of peaceful association, opinion and information; freedom to leave or enter a country.
Now any well-intentioned humanitarian like, say, the Duke of Edinburgh—who is a patron of the U.K. Committee for Human Rights—would readily pay lip service to these rights for the working class. So would a lot of Labour lefties, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Soper and the Communist Party, who are all in it as well.
The U.K. Committee, supported by 140 organisations, will be campaigning all this year and a very impressive programme they have. One of the high spots is the International Seminar on Freedom of Association, in London this month. The campaign has four main objectives: to publicise the Declaration; to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination; to end all discrimination against women; to help the peoples of Britain’s dependent territories to realise their human rights. Not bad. It’s only taken them twenty years to think up four objectives. And what chance have they of being achieved?
Lena Jeger, Labour M.P. for Holborn and St. Pancras, in the New Statesman (31/12/67) gave a run down on some of the fine-sounding articles, for example: “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. The right to leave and return to any country.” And what did the Labour government do, a couple of months after she wrote that article, to the Kenyan Asians’ right to leave and enter any country?
The world situation was summarised in the UNESCO journal Courier of January 1968, in an article by Rene Cassin, former president of the UN Commission on Human Rights:
Repeated violations of the rights to life, killings and massacres left unpunished, the exploitation of woman, mass hunger and starvation, the perpetuation of slavery, lack of proper education, disregard for freedom of conscience, opinion and expression, widespread racial discrimination and segregation, arbitrary government—all these and many other abuses are far too frequent to be denied.
In this sorry situation it would be better if the UN, instead of bewailing the fate of human rights, were to ask why they are so often violated. Sometimes it is simply a case of capitalism being unable to satisfy those rights. Thus although Article 25 of the Declaration states that everyone has the right “. .. . to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of himself and of his family including food, clothing and housing”, the November 1965 White Paper on housing stated that in Britain some three million families still live in slums, near slums or in grossly overcrowded conditions and the 1966 Annual Report of the Ministry of Health told us that “Of the 12,411 people in hostels for the homeless on one night last year 8,160—just under two thirds — were children.”
But what about the other violations of human nights—of human liberty? The plain fact here is that a ruling class which suppresses opposition does so because it sees that opposition as a threat to its own position. In Russia, for example, the state imprisoned the writers Daniel and Sinyavsky because it is afraid to allow too free a criticism of Russian state capitalism. This sort of event is not unknown in the so-called democracies of the western world. In wartime, for example, the British government assumes all sorts of dictatorial powers—and so it does in peacetime, when it considers the stability of British capitalism to be seriously threatened by, say, a strike.
If the history of Human Rights proves anything, it is that they cannot be achieved within a property society. The private property system is itself a matter of privilege and therefore a denial of the right of equal standing to the vast majority of the world’s people. Even more, a privileged class will always struggle to keep its privileges—often by force and suppression.
We have had World Refugee Year, which ended up with more refugees than it started with. We have had World Hunger Year — and we still have devastating famines. If Human Rights Year does as much for us. there will be a lot less freedom at the end of 1968 than there was at the beginning.